Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
BFR: The Mysterious Case of Zack Greinke
2006-02-28 01:47
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I don't know how closely everyone is following this story, so I'll start at the beginning.

Sunday, Zack Greinke walked out of Royals camp in Surprise, Arizona. According to some sources, Greinke was deeply unenthusiastic at practice on Saturday, and had to be cajoled into participating in team activites. Family members reached by ESPN and the Kansas City Star have declined comment. The only reason manager Buddy Bell and GM Allard Baird will give for Greinke's (excused) absence is "personal matters."

Greinke is the Kansas City version of Jeff Francis, a precocious pitching talent upon whom much of his franchise's future hope rests. Drafted sixth overall in 2002, the righthander rocketed through the minors and made it to the majors in time to pitch 145 innings in 2004. His numbers were extremely promising: 8-11, 3.97 ERA, 1.17 WHIP. Then last year he regressed: 5.80 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 183 innings. His 17 losses (against five wins) were an American League high. Never much of a strikeout pitcher (5.8 K/9 in '04, 5.3 in '05), Greinke's average allowed jumped from .256 to .309, no doubt thanks in part to a team behind him that ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last year.

So what is Zack Greinke's problem? It's not drugs, is all Allard Baird will say, besides "there is no timetable for his return." Bell: "We're going about it, quite frankly, that Zack is not going to be here in time to get ready for the rotation. We pretty much are preparing for the worst right now. That could change. I don't think it will."

If you were inclined to go looking for "clues" in the scouting material published about Greinke over the years, you would find some eyebrow-raising things. In 2003, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook wrote of Greinke: "a workaholic who studies hitters and figures to succeed with his intellect and command." The 2005 Baseball Prospectus rhapsodizes, "we have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke," and goes on at length about the then-21-year-old's artistry at changing speeds and inventing new pitches to keep hitters off-balance. But suddenly the tone changes in the 2006 Baseball Register: "At times seems bored on the mound." OK, let's take a moment to wildly speculate. Has being stuck with the Royals stolen Zack Greinke's passion for the game?

This would be an alarming precedent indeed, were Greinke's "personal issues" specifically linked to pitching for Kansas City as opposed to just pitching in general. The NFL and NBA certainly see their fair share of athletes dogging it or flat-out refusing to play for certain teams -- see Jim Jackson, Vince Carter, or Terrell Owens. We have even seen just-drafted players manipulate their ways out of undesirable situations, as did Kobe Bryant with Charlotte, or more recently Eli Manning with the Chargers. But baseball, for whatever reason, has been relatively free of this sort of problem, which when you think of it is kind of surprising given how long MLB organizations have control over their drafted players compared to franchises in the other major team sports. Perhaps it's because most pro ballplayers have to spend several years in the minors before they surface in The Show, engendering both loyalty to their organization and appreciation for the opportunity to play for any big league team (even the Royals). Greinke, of course, spent a microscopic amount of time in the minors (180 innings).

Of course, there are a multitude of reasons other than "sick of Kansas City" why Zack Greinke might have chosen to give spring training a miss. For the time being, neither Bell nor Baird nor Greinke himself are talking. If word leaks out that the Royals are looking to trade their putative ace, we'll have a lot more to go on. I wouldn't advise the Rockies to start thinking of an offer package, however, because I highly doubt Greinke would like playing in Coors Field any more than he likes playing in front of the Royals' defense.

2006-02-28 04:00:53
1.   fuzzycopper
Sounds like he's depressed. He's stuck on a bad team, he's had a rough run at pitching at the major league level the past year-plus, and there's possibly some family/personal matters thrown in there as well (e.g. like Tim Worrell's under-the-radar battle with alcoholism last year for which he went on "personal leave").

Regardless of what it is or isn't, I hope for a speedy and successful return for Zach since it was going to be a long season for KC fans beforehand, and without him, it just got longer.

2006-02-28 08:25:13
2.   Ali Nagib
I'd frankly be surprised if the issue with Zack was simply about the Royals, because if it was, you'd think he would have given a stronger indication of it by now. I know it's not very common for a pre-arbitration player to ask for a trade, but that doesn't mean he couldn't. While publically doing so would decrease his value somewhat, I don't think the effect would be that huge...he's still a very young, very highly prized pitcher who makes next to nothing and will be cheap for a few more seasons. This isn't the NBA where the Raptors couldn't get anything close to equal value for Vinsanity, or even the NFL. There's no salary cap in baseball, and no other significant barriers to trading a player such as Greinke and getting (approximately) equal value. Even if he came out tomorrow and said "I'm never pitching for the Royals again, and I'd rather quit baseball for good than do so," there would still be a team out there willing to make a reasonable deal for him. I mean, if I were the only good player on the Royals, I'd be depressed too. I think the other teams understand that.
2006-02-28 08:58:48
3.   Beth
i suppose it's easy for me to say this as a mere fan, but i tend to respect athletes the most who are willing to embrace the pressure of being the hope of a struggling team. as you said, it's wild speculation, but if this is bellyaching about being with a bad team,'s kind of a catch-22, but i believe a player who isn't willing to struggle and help raise the performance of a bad team won't be much better on a good team.
2006-02-28 08:59:07
4.   nickb
Soren Petro, one of the local sports radio guys here in KC has his own theory. Apparently, Guy Hansen,the pitching coach last year (and possibly Buddy Bell), told Greinke to throw nothing but fastballs the first three innings of every start. Obviously, the results were atrocious. Toward the end of the year, Greinke decided to just pitch the way he had the year before when he had a 4/1 K/BB ratio and pitched fairly well. Petro thinks that Bell might be putting him on the same program again and Greinke's just fed up. I know I am. You finally find a young kid who understands what it means to "pitch", has great success at every level, and then you decided to turn him into a thrower? It's totally asinine. Looking at the Royals' record of developing pitching over the last decade, I've got to think it has something to do witht their mismanagement of Greinke in this situation. If we lose Greinke, you'd better just can Baird and everyone in the front office because this is an unmitigated disaster. It's always nice to be pissed about your favorite team's season before the season even starts...
2006-02-28 13:10:46
5.   Voxter
I think it's an excess of bunnies.

More seriously, all we know for sure is that Baird has said it isn't a drug problem and it isn't disciplinary, either of which could be only partly truthful, but it seems to me as though, if Greinke were just having a hissy fit about not wanting to throw fastballs, Baird wouldn't be nearly so conciliatory as he's been in the press. Royals brass certainly didn't hesitate to air its Carlos Beltran-related dirty laundry when Beltran refused a rehab assignment a few years back.

It strikes me that you've got a few possibilities: One, and the one that seems most likely, is that he's suffering from some sort of widely-recognized psychological difficulty, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Two, there's some kind of family problem at home, such as a serious illness or a divorce. Three, the problem isn't drugs, but to being clean, though at that point you're getting into wild speculation based mostly on the fact that Baird has said it's not drugs. Beyond that, who knows, but I'd bet it's one of those three things, probably one of the first two.

2006-02-28 13:56:59
6.   nickb
I wouldn't be suprised if it was some sort of clinical depression, but they're indicating it's not a physical problem. Anyone who has been clinically depressed (myself included) knows that it is more than just "bucking up" and getting through a perceived tough time. It's a physical, brain-chemical thing that needs to be treated by a doctor. If that's what it is, than I'm a little bit relieved, not because I'm glad he has it but because I know it's quite curable.
2006-02-28 14:07:39
7.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Obviously, it's up to Greinke and his family to make the decisions about what they do or not tell the press, but if it was clinical depression, I think they would be less reticent, since it's treatable and there are precedents of athlete sufferers returning to contribute. Of course, perhaps since since being diagnosed as bipolar myself I have lived in two of the country's most PC university towns (Berkeley and Boulder), I underestimate what the stigma is like in quote-unquote "Middle America."
2006-02-28 14:25:22
8.   das411
Has anybody ever seen Greinke and 1997 J. D. Drew in the same place at the same time...?
2006-03-01 10:43:50
9.   jimthree
I've known Zack for a long time, both personally and in baseball. For three years before he was drafted, he played baseball for me. AND we've talked on a couple of occaisions since he began playing for the Royals. I've read some of the comments here and they show concern but they also show unfamiliarity. Zack is genuine. WYSIWYG with Zack and I mean that in the best way. I think getting drafted as a youngster affected him no more no less than it affects every high school athelete that is projected for stardom by 'experts' before they even reach the game. If I were to guess what is bothering Zack (and I will respect his privacy and not call him, he'll work it out)I would agree with some comments here that the Royals is just not a great fit. I would bet he is feeling incomplete as an athelete. Zack was a great infielder and pitcher. He fought with that split all the time and so did the scouts. Everyday player or just a pitcher. I think he misses having the opportunity to be a complete player. I know he loved to hit. I think Kansas City is probably a tough place to play and Zack, being as competitive as he is, gave it a try BUT. I read an interview where he waffled about when he had the most that if you can and you'll see what I mean. He admits he used to eat sleep and drink baseball but what he doesn't say is he's also all about winning. He is used to being a key to vitory. I'll bet 5-17 took all that out of him.

Whatever you believe, it's not depression or drugs, drugs doesn't fit Zack and depression is giving up...Zack doesn't give up. I truly believe he'll come to a conclusion but if I had to guess I would say he's feeling very unsure about his future and that's it.

2006-03-01 12:45:30
10.   Voxter
"depression is giving up"

I respect that you know Mr Greinke better than any of us, but this phrase demonstrates a clear lack of familiarity with the disease.

2006-03-01 18:53:48
11.   jimthree
I believe I used 'giving up' as a reference to his walking away from camp...from that people conclude he is suffering from depression. I believe this is a baseball discussion not a clinical seminar. Please ....
2006-03-01 19:00:57
12.   jimthree
In reference to my comment also, You don't even know the person and you 'brought' clinic diagnosis into the situation - "It strikes me that you've got a few possibilities: *One, and the one that seems most LIKELY, is that he's suffering from some sort of widely-recognized psychological difficulty, such as depression or bipolar disorder."* Even called it most likely...Interesting ....I believe I would hold off such a 'label' as that until you've been allowed to examine him. Did I misuse and is it possible I don't know or understand depression...YES ... but you don't know Zack and you were willing to throw a tag on him ... I believe that is a bit more troubling than jimthree not properly discussing depression.
2006-03-02 09:42:38
13.   nickb
Interesting insight about him missing being a "complete" player. But don't hundreds of kids have to deal with that after becoming a pro? He may or may not be clinically depressed, but you can't rule it out just because you know him. All my friends and family members "knew" me and had no idea I was going through it. For the longest time I had no idea I was going through it. Regardless of what it is, I hope he can work through it and make it back on to the field. It would be a shame if he couldn't.
2006-03-02 10:17:59
14.   jimthree
nickb...I agree whole heartedly with your post. I, perhaps, am speaking as I am because I hope it is nothing serious and also to offer another possibility. I think everyone jumps to conclusions too quickly. I emailed his dad and heard back from him - to wish Zack well WHATEVER it is and that is where I will leave it. I just hope everyone 'waits' to see what is going on before deciding for him. Thanks for your post and I hope you're doing well. As far as the comment ........."hundreds of kids have to deal with that after becoming a pro?" The older they are when they get drafted the easier 'pro life' is to deal with. Unlike other sports, baseball gets roughly half their draft picks every year from high school. I've long felt that should change.
2006-03-02 11:16:41
15.   nickb
Thanks for the well wishes, jimthree. I am doing well now. And hopefully Zack will be, too, whatever it is he's dealing with.

Concerning the comment...

"The older they are when they get drafted the easier 'pro life' is to deal with."

...I agree. I think it's definitely wise for kids to go to college, not only for education but for experience. But wouldn't you say most kids who are drafted out of high school have the choice of going to college or heading to the minors? Given the choice, you have to prepare yourself for a much different and less sheltered life if you go pro. That's what I'm getting at when I say hundreds of kids have to deal with this. Maybe you just don't hear as much about it because most kids don't rocket through the system like Zack did.

2006-03-02 13:37:08
16.   jimthree
I was involved with draft eligible high school seniors, in Florida, for 11 years, on a professional and amatuer level. Your question is a good one but not as easy to answer as one might think.

When a high school senior is drafted, especially if it's in a higher round, there is a great deal of pressure on the youngster from many levels. He has a choice to go to college (if he's drafted high, he probably also has a scholarship to college to play ball) or sign a pro contract. The scouts put the pressure on to sign, the college coach is there telling him why he shouldn't. You can have an advisor but don't talk to an agent. Different rules for four year colleges and two year colleges, NCAA and NAIA. The biggest reason for signing a pro contract, even if you don't feel you're quite ready, is that you are aware that a ton of things can happen. You may not be drafted again or you could get drafted in a lower round; you may get injured in college and never play again or at least diminish your value,tons of possibilities and all these weigh on the youngster. Toss in the unbelievable bonus they wave in front of the kids drafted rounds 1 - 3 and you have stress. Just for kicks, throw in the parents and wow what a weight on a 17 or 18 year old's shoulders. Having 'watched' all this over the years, I'm not so sure it's all their choice and I'm not so sure they have a chance to be prepared. If they go to college they give themselves those extra years to grow and gain some independance. BUT they do so with the knowledge they may change their draft status big time. On top of all that, add the goofy rules about agents, advisors, NCAA versus Junior College and juggling scholarship dollars and it can be a load for kids.

2006-03-03 09:16:06
17.   nickb
Again, excellent insight and very good points. That kind of pressure could certainly contribute to a kid having depression or anxiety issues. Whether that's what's going on with Zack or not is anyone's guess. But the lesson to be learned here is a good one: things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.